I am 22 years old and in my final undergraduate year. I would like to go straight on and do an MBA but all the top schools seem to demand years of work experience. What is the point of that?
Dear Prospective MBA,
You are correct in saying that the MBA is somewhat unusual among postgraduate qualifications in generally demanding that students already have some experience in the area it professes to teach (management and business).
Most notably, the two professions of law and medicine do not require this, instead including large amounts of “on-the-job” learning as part of the teaching process. (Few people, of course, would want a doctor to be allowed to practise before being qualified.)
Rightly or wrongly, management is not regarded as a “profession” and individuals require no previous qualification to undertake it. The argument for the MBA requiring some previous experience of work—whether as a manager or something entirely different—is that students can apply their experience to the theoretical concepts they meet in the classroom.
This is especially true in analysing case studies based on real situations. In many areas there are no rights or wrongs in management—it is not a “hard science”—just options and making decisions often requires drawing on previous experience of similar situations.
More cynically, it has also been suggested that MBA graduates with previous experience tend to do better in the recruitment market, and attract higher salaries. This looks good in alumni data and can also be important in rankings.
That said, you are incorrect in saying that all MBA programmes demand prior experience. Harvard and Stanford, for example, make it explicit that they will accept MBA applications from people straight from college (though usually they ask for a superior academic record and an indication of “leadership potential”). It is true, though, that it is almost universally expected at leading business schools in Europe.
There have been some concerns in the US that the insistence on work experience is narrowing the applicant base for MBA studies and it is possible that they may follow the European model of specialist masters degrees in areas such as finance or marketing and, particularly, the so-called “Master’s in Management”—a pre-experience MBA in all but name.
For anyone eager to get a qualification under their belt before starting work, a specialised masters or general masters in management is the obvious route. You can always take an MBA after gaining some experience.
If you have any advice for our prospective student feel free to post it below. If you have a question for George Bickerstaffe please email it to: AskTheExpert@economist.com